You will not be betrayed by ‘The Traitors’

The new Peacock competition series The traitorsall 10 episodes of which are now streaming is goofy, hyper-dramatic, suspenseful and quite entertaining.

The basic structure is as follows: 20 participants are segregated in a lock. Three of them are labeled as traitors by the show. Viewers know which three, and the three know each other and meet privately, but their identities are a mystery to the rest of the group. There are two eliminations in each round. One comes when the traitors choose someone to “murder,” which they do by slipping a note under their door. The other comes when the whole group sits around a table and votes someone out (everyone votes, including traitors).

Everyone obviously denies being a traitor; each claims to be what they call “a believer.” The goal of believers is to identify and vote out (“banish”) all people who are secret traitors. The goal of the traitors is to survive the rounds of banishment and still be standing at the end. There is a pot of money, and when all the traitors are banished at the end of the game, the remaining believers share the money. If there are still traitors, the traitors share the money. (The very, very endgame won’t be revealed until it comes their way, so don’t worry it’s not clear how this will actually end.)

There are some parallels with the long-running (on and off) show The Mole, as there are traitors in the group, but there are also a few key differences. One is that viewers are there at all times so they can see the Traitors maneuvering and trying to avoid detection – and of course banishing people other than themselves, especially those who might be on top of them. (Speaking for myself, I much prefer it.) The other is that if the group wins the “missions” that build the prize pot, the traitors have no incentive to sabotage the group. On the one hand, this makes the missions feel pretty good because it’s just a group of people trying to accomplish a common task (like solving puzzles or games together), but on the other hand… What’s wrong with it?

There are two other things to know about Peacock’s version of The traitors. One is that this version decided to stack its cast half regular players (say, civilians) and half reality show veterans. A pair of survivora few of Big Brothera former Bachelorpeople from Real housewives and summer housea former chief stew of Under deckand even Ryan Lochte, Olympic swimmer, became… whatever he is now.

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Euan Cherry / Peacock

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peacock

Alan Cumming is the perfect host for The traitors.

The other is that the host is Alan Cumming, whose delight in every single word he utters, particularly “traitor” and “murder,” elevates the whole thing to a high level of ridiculous fun. He struts around in an array of plaids, capes, hats, bright colors and whatever else is festive invested. Like, invested. You could feed a lion a gazelle, a large pepperoni pizza, and an ice cream sandwich, and you wouldn’t see that lion make a meal of it the way Alan Cumming makes a meal of hosting this show.

It turns out to be a surprisingly well-designed competition. My assumption with most competitive shows is that while people are playing in front of the cameras (including those who are veterans of playing in front of the cameras, of course) they actually want to win. This means that people are really trying to find out who among them might be the traitors, and the traitors are really trying to avoid detection. The best part is that someone who is banished goes straight to the “Circle of Truth” and tells the group if they were a traitor or a believer. So if the person has been proclaiming all along that they are a believer (and has protested that they were), the believers obviously feel stupid voting them out. And if they were a traitor, there is a lot of joy. Rarely does someone’s vote off a show have such an instant payoff, where the expelled can announce if his own removal was folly.

When someone is banished, they go to the "circle of truth" and tell the group whether they were a traitor or a believer.

Euan Cherry / Peacock

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peacock

When someone is banished, they immediately go to the “Circle of Truth” and tell the group if they were a traitor or a believer.

To understand what the show is doing right, it helps to distinguish between shows that are silly on the one hand and shows that are stupid on the other. In this case, by “dumb” I mean shows that have a confident, intentional, tongue-in-cheek sense of how overwrought they are; They are openly involved in the joke. By “stupid” I mean shows that don’t really show the skill, wit, or strategy of anyone involved. Some shows are silly and stupid (Real housewives), some are neither stupid nor stupid (top chef), some are stupid but not silly (The bachelor), and some, like this one, are silly but not stupid. Alan Cumming is very silly, the ideas of “circle of truth” and “banishment” and “muurrrrrrrder” are very silly – but you can actually see people trying to figure out how best to position themselves to win.

And while some of the reality show veterans they brought back are certainly people I never hoped to see again (particularly Rachel Reilly from Big Brother and The amazing race), many of whom are either friendly enough or entertaining enough to make good company, and Cirie Fields, a multi-season survivor Competitor is one of my favorites. When you put together a solid cast with a very entertaining and over-the-top sense of atmosphere, the perfect host, and a nice, juicy game design, you end up with a very watchable – and very drinkable – show.

This track first appeared on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter Plus, so you don’t miss the next one, you’ll also get weekly recommendations on what makes us happy.

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